The Cruel and the Callow

  cultural commentator

There are many kinds of cultural wars raging across Australia at this late 1990s moment. I want to talk about just one of them – in the arena of intellectual life and cultural commentary. I want to jump into some of the debates that have arisen with publishing events like Mark Davis’ book Gangland, and like-minded books in its wake, and also some of the rejoinders to that work in books such as Robert Manne’s The Way We Live Now.


I think there is at least one very good reason why some people are drawn to talking about culture wars, beyond the fact that it sounds hyper-lively and sensational. I think that virtually every culture war is about inclusion or exclusion in a particular cultural scene or social sector. The different zones of our culture – and I think this is true of the literary world and the academic world, which are only two examples – are ruled by a largely unspoken code of privilege. This code of privilege governs who is going to be recognised and let in the door, who is going to be allowed to have a place and a voice.


Personally, I have very little trouble getting access to public space, a forum for my views and thoughts. But I recognise and sympathise completely with the cultural situation that Mark Davis finally exposed in Gangland – and I say finally, because it really was not news: most people of my age (late 30s) had been mumbling the truth of that book to each other angrily for at least fifteen years.


Let me spell out that truth in tabloid terms: there is a loose class of people – the usual suspects, as Davis calls them – who hog the most visible, public spaces for cultural, political, economic commentary in the Australian media, in newspapers and magazines, on radio and TV. They hog that space simply because, invariably, they get asked to fill it by commissioning editors. And there seems to be sometimes an old-fogey sameness to their opinions – a resistance to many new things, new ideas, new styles of culture.


A friend of mine once mused about this long-standing situation of privilege in Australian culture by referring to a 1940 essay by George Orwell, “Inside the Whale”. His analysis came down to this: those who are inside the whale, inside a cozy scene, blessed by privilege, see nothing – almost nothing – outside their own little world. That is because, as far as they are concerned, they are the world: they stand for everyone, and can speak on their behalf.


On the other hand, people who are outside the whale, locked out of this privilege, become fixated upon the space from which they are excluded. They rail against it, throw stink bombs at it, and monitor it obsessively – often burning up their own energies in the process.


So that is a culture war. Actually, over a year after Gangland’s initial release, it has become more of a sideshow, or maybe a soap opera. On the one side, the ‘excluded youth’ (grunge writers, pop culture theorists, cyber-heads, and so on) – these hordes of the suppressed, armed with their magnificent resentment, slag off the oldies, and scramble for some public space. And, on the other side, the ‘establishment fogeys’ – the newspaper columnists, radio and TV talk show hosts, cartoonists and satirists, plus the various less visible editorial gatekeepers of the media – try out their best smarmy jokes, shore up their defensive strategies, and continue to pretend that nothing of interest can really exist outside the walls of their elite club.


That is doubtless a too-simple war of good versus bad. In the wash-up, something a little less spectacular than generational change or cultural revolution has actually taken place. I suspect that both sides in this war have become rather snap-frozen. And personally, I can get mighty irritated with the habits of thought and speech, the posturing, the tics and tropes that occur on both sides of this particular culture war. Being the age I am (going on 39), I feel I am perfectly entitled to be disenchanted with both the older professionals and the younger radicals – entitled to be annoyed by both the cruel and the callow.


For instance, there is a certain kind of intellectual narcissism which inflicts both sides in this war. When it comes to some of our entrenched columnists and commentators, this is an expansive kind of narcissism. You get the feeling that they seek out nothing new anymore: everything they need to know will be filtered out for them by their friends, contacts and associates in their circle. If they ever surf the Internet, for instance, it is so that they can write a somewhat pained, superior bit of reportage on how they have dipped into that crazy world of wildly free speech out there – and they have decided that, really, it is not worth visiting again.


Sometimes the cozy circle of self-reference and friendly back-slapping in our newspapers becomes too much to bear: the art critic has chatted to the language expert who has coffee with the ex-literary editor, and they are all telling us afterwards what urbane, witty and cruel things they have said to each other – mainly about the crude phenomena out there in pop culture (like gangsta rap, say) that they have sagely agreed it is best to avoid.


But narcissism rules in the youth brigade, too. Actually, even to publicly label oneself young, or ally oneself rhetorically with the army of youth when one is no longer exactly 21 years old, is already an odd and pretty unstable form of narcissism. Of course, this particular culture war is more about attitude, sensibility, ideology, than strict, biological age – as Davis’ book clearly argued. But in this opposing camp that flies the banner of youth, one can nonetheless hear some very strange things.


This side of the culture war likes to use the scary form of the ultimatum. They say that everything is now dead and obsolete – the novel is dead, humanism is dead, old-left-wing politics is dead, the public sphere is dead, even the act or art of criticism itself is dead. Only those who are issuing these ultimata, obviously, are alive and happening, riding that wave of the eternal present – and that, let me assure you, is another hard act to maintain for too many years in a row.


The agitators for the youth-driven side of the culture war keep telling us that we are entering a New World – a world ushered in by the Internet, by digital technology, by prosthetic surgery, by high-speed pop culture, you name it. And they tell us this without stopping to ponder how the first manifestations of this New World are going to mesh with all the structures of our still-standing Old World – a meshing which is never a less-than-messy business. They never tell us how this New World is going to actually, materially make it into each of our loungerooms.


There is an element of intellectual fashion or fashionability here – which is probably obligatory whenever somebody tries to push something new and youthful. But worse, there is an intellectual terrorism at work. This brave new world talk always assumes we are all moving together in sync at the same moment, thinking the same thoughts, having the same ground-breaking experiences – and if you are not having those particular thoughts and experiences, not speaking that lingo, then you are made to feel stupid, unhip or a dinosaur.


This kind of culture war rhetoric refuses to see the fact that different people, different groups of people, are always located in different places, at staggered stages of development, working with diverse sets of customs and values, experiences and information. Any effective kind of cultural gesture has to see and work with that kind of diverse audience reality if it hopes to be part of the generalised democratic public discussion which McKenzie Wark calls our virtual republic.


Now let us get back inside the minds of our ageing elite. They love to sing the sad song of decline: the decline of life, of society, of culture. Everything was better back in the good old days. In particular, if I hear the phrase ‘the dumbing down of culture’ one more time, I will scream – if only because high-minded commentators seem to have lamented the unending trivialisation and decay of mass culture on just about every day of this century. In fact, culture is always dumb – and it is always smart – depending on what you are after and from what angle you are looking at it.


Actually, the youth factor, or what Anton Bruckner called the ‘pains of youth’, creep in even here. This is because the nostalgic lament of the melancholic culture critic always harks back to when they were 21 years old – when there was Sinatra or Fellini or J.D. Salinger, instead of Madonna and Tarantino and Bret Easton Ellis. None of us are immune to the charms of this argument: myself, I am getting ready to write a major essay proclaiming that mass culture has been going irrevocably downhill since the great days of disco music in the early 1980s.


The next thing that annoys me on both sides of the cultural war is the never-ending smash-and-grab for-and-against so-called political correctness. Where this circus has got to lately, in the entrenched brigade, is a proud public embrace of political incorrectness. You know how this one goes: a comedian like Barry Humphries, or a poet laureate like Les Murray, gets up on the public stage and says: we live in terribly rigid, censorious, prudish, joyless times! The social revolutions of the 1960s and ‘70s have brought down a politically correct, punitive prison of values and norms and rules! So, just watch out if you are a cheeky individualist, or if you simply speak your mind – and watch out especially if you are a traditional, old-style, Australian male! And so then the oldies, having torched their straw man, have a whale of a time being politically incorrect in public. When the results are not merely silly, they are just an excuse to be loud and reactionary. You can get a decent blast of this political incorrectness if you check out the very strange Australian film Welcome to Woop Woop – which comes complete with a legitimating cameo from B. Humphries.


However, on the other, trendier side of the fence, I have to say that there is indeed something resembling political correctness. It arises from a beleaguered fortress or siege mentality experienced by people who feel they do not have social power, who do not have access to automatic media attention, or widespread public approval – as yet. Again, this is that ‘outside the whale’ syndrome: on our little island, our set of new, confronting values are so precious, so fragile, so endangered, that we have to ram them through into the public eye with as little scrutiny or criticism as possible.


In cultural terms, I am talking here about the hysterical defensiveness that clings to some fierce advocates of multiculturalism, of queer theory, and a few other neighbouring social movements. Take a look at the Australian film Head On, for instance. Because this is a film about a changing, multicultural society, because it is about queer sexuality, because it is made by a woman, simply because it is Australian – and because it comes from an acclaimed youth-grunge novel – this film is untouchable, uncriticisable in some quarters. Many reviewers, feeling press-ganged by this mentality, do not even pause to judge it as a film, or question it as a cultural object on any level: they simply promote it, offering it up as a simple mirror reflection of our dynamically changing world. When Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton give virtually every new Australian movie (Head On included) off-the-chart high star ratings – that, to me, is indeed an example of political correctness.


Here are two general trends in cultural commentary that bug me. The first concerns our massive popular obsession at the moment with science as the be-all and end-all of every Grand Question. I have absolutely nothing against scientific investigation; nor against those consumers who race to bookstores to buy books by popular scientists. But I have noticed that some of our more conservative cultural commentators have become very fond of saying to their enemies: look, ordinary people at large do not care about postmodernism, or queer sexuality, or the new digital age, or whatever fresh, intellectual commodity you stylish young things are peddling; all that the ninety-nine-point-nine-percent of real people really care about are the really big questions, the only important ones.


And what are these questions? How about: Where did we come from? Is the universe ruled by chance or design? What is there in outer space? Does time have a solid bottom or a fuzzy bottom? Now, I may be missing something in this pop science obsession, but I just cannot believe that these amazing questions will prompt answers to all that ails us today. And it is not just the bouncing new baby of postmodern ideas (and whatnot) that gets thrown out with this outer-space bathwater – it is virtually all political ideas and social analysis, any ideological or materialist study of the conditions that make up our world. This bizarre, cosmic turn in public thought is basically just a way, finally, to avoid talking about niggly social problems that just will not go away.


The final issue I want to raise is the problem of the public intellectual in Australia as the instant know-all – the expert on public life who is called upon for their specialist, insightful comment. There is no real reason why this system of expert opinion should not work, why it should not contribute something modestly good to our public conversation. Here and now, however, the system has absolutely stopped working. Maybe this is because the modesty element went out of it long ago.


The problem with the Australian public intellectual in the mass media – young or old, new-fangled or old-fangled, radical or reactionary – is that he or she is forced to have an opinion on everything, every aspect and level of life and society, culture and science. The notion that diverse specialists, various interested parties all over the place, different individuals with various experiences and reflections, should be brought in and allowed to speak in public in a way that does not squash, mangle or streamline the diversity of those views – this is the notion that our mass media editorial gatekeepers, for whatever curious reasons, still cannot come at. And that is why – when our representative public intellectuals feel compelled to stand for a constituency or a generation or a way of life – our culture wars sometimes become just broken-down carnivals.


This is the transcript of a talk given on the “Culture Wars” panel at the 1998 Melbourne Writers Festival.


© Adrian Martin August 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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